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Best Practices Checklist: Ex-Offender Reentry Programs

Best Practices Checklist:

Ex-Offender Reentry Programs


Principles for Effective Practice

Although there is limited research on what specific components make a reentry program successful, analysis of existing studies has lead researchers to offer the following suggestions (sources are listed at the end):


·        Focus your program on the ex-offenders who are most likely to recidivate.  High-risk offenders benefit more from intervention than low-risk offenders.  You may think that high-risk offenders will be too hard to reach, but in general, low-risk offenders do not need treatment as they are much less likely to recidivate.  It is therefore best to direct your resources to those who are most in need. 


·        Intervention should be focused on the qualities that are known to place a person at risk to commit crime. Many qualities are used to predict if someone is at a higher risk to commit crime.  These “predictors” are divided into two categories: static predictors, such as criminal history, which cannot be changed, and dynamic predictors, such as weak self-control skills, which can be changed.  Thankfully, research has shown that dynamic predictors are more influential than static predictors on criminal risk, leaving open the possibility for rehabilitation.  Some of the dynamic predictors often exhibited in ex-offenders are positive attitudes toward crime; association with other people that commit crime; impulsiveness; weak social skills; enjoyment of risk; below average verbal intelligence; antisocial behavior; and weak educational, problem-solving, vocational, and employment skills.


·        Intervention should be comprehensive; that is, it should treat as many needs of participants as possible.   Instead of focusing your program on only one high-risk characteristic, it is more effective to treat all the high-risk characteristics that are exhibited in each participant.  For example, you may wish to offer job training to ex-offenders, but if you have a participant that is also struggling with anger management, it might be much more effective to treat both weaknesses at once.  If the participant cannot control his anger then he might have a hard time holding down a job.


·        Teach the participants to recognize and resist antisocial behavior.  Because of the environments in which they have lived, ex-offenders may have erroneous ideas of “normal” behavior. Therefore, they may have a hard time even recognizing what is socially unacceptable.  But beyond understanding antisocial behavior, they need to learn how to resist the pressures to participate in such activities. 


·        Try to discover the learning styles of your program participants and then match them with staff whose teaching styles would best accommodate them.  Treatment is most effective if it is tailored for the needs of each individual participant.  Although this is certainly harder to do, the effort is worth the outcome.  Treatments are more effective if they are well-structured and include role-playing--if the staff model the behavior they wish to see in the participants and if the ex-prisoners consistently and immediately receive positive reinforcements of desired behavior.  (Examples of positive reinforcers are verbal praise or approval, monetary gifts, food, or social activities like going to a baseball game.)  Treatment is less effective if it is unstructured, self-reflective, and verbally interactive.  Research has also shown that punishment is one of the least effective means of treatment.


·        The program should probably last about 3 to 9 months.  Finding an optimal length for your program may be difficult as it will probably depend on the curriculum content as well as the needs of the participants.  In general, research suggests that programs be several months in length and be time-intensive.


·        Treatment should come from well-funded programs with committed staff.  Even the best interventions will fail if they are not sufficiently supported.  Select sensitive staff members and train them well so that they are able to effectively communicate the curriculum.  Monitor your staff and offer them help and support when needed. 


·        Community-based programs are believed to be more effective than institution-based programs.  This is not to say that institution-based programs are unhelpful.  If the ex-offenders in your program have already received some sort of treatment in prison, make sure you coordinate your program with the institution-based program.  If you repeat too much of the curriculum they have already received, your participants may become frustrated.


·        Involve a Researcher when designing and developing your program.  Someone who has done research in the field of prisoner reentry could offer helpful suggestions on how to structure your program in a successful way.  It is also wise to have your program evaluated regularly. For the evaluation to be effective, the evaluator should be neutral and unbiased. Therefore, it should not be someone who helped to design the program.



Adult Correctional Treatment by Gaes, G.G., Flanagan, T.J., Motiuk, L., and Stewart, L., September 1998.

Assessing Correctional Rehabilitation: Policy, Practice, and Prospects by Francis T. Cullen and Paul Gendreau, Criminal Justice 2000, Volume 3: Policies, Processes, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System. National Institute of Justice, 2000.



Curriculum Components


Ex-offenders face many challenges as they try to transition back into community life.  Here are some that you may want to take into consideration as you plan your reentry program:


Substance Abuse

In 2002, 66.0% of prison inmates drank alcohol regularly and 68.7% used drugs regularly.[1]  Although some offenders receive treatment while in prison, substance use/abuse is still a problem among many of the men and women who are transitioning back into their communities.  Use of such substances may, of course,  cause many problems, from health detriments and irrational decision-making to conflicts with employers and family members.


Job Training/Placement

Research has shown that employment opportunities may help reduce recidivism rates, although perhaps only for adults and not juvenile offenders.[2]  This seems logical in that many ex-offenders, in addition to their own personal needs, have financial obligations (i.e. child support, victim compensation) to fulfill once released and will be sent back to prison if these obligations are not met.  The situation is complicated by the fact that many employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders.  In a survey of 3,000 employers in 2001, 2/3 said they wouldn’t knowingly hire an ex-prisoner,[3] a worrisome statistic for ex-offenders looking for work.


Family Relations

Relatives can offer the financial and emotional support that ex-offenders need in transitioning back into community life.  Most ex-offenders have high expectations about easily renewing relationships with family members after their release from prison.  For the most part, these expectations are met.  But adjusting back into family life can be difficult for some ex-prisoners.  Some families are reluctant to accept ex-offenders back into their homes for fear of criminal activity and eviction.  Physical abuse face some as they head home.  Not all family situations are welcoming, healthy, supportive environments; some threaten to undermine rehabilitation.



As soon as someone steps out of the prison walls they are faced with the question, “Where am I going to sleep tonight?”  Some can afford to rent or buy an apartment or home, but the majority do not have enough money to make the large downpayments or security deposits that are required.  Although offenders are often given a small amount of money when they leave prison, it is usually only enough to buy them transportation and some food--certainly it is not enough to secure housing.  Even if an ex-offender has money available, landlords may be unwilling to rent to them.  For these reasons, a large percentage of ex-offenders live with relatives or friends when first exiting the prison system. Those who don’t often make rely on transitional housing.  Some, however, are left homeless.  The California Department of Corrections estimates that 10% of all parolees in the state were homeless in 1997 and 30% to 50% of parolees in Los Angeles and San Francisco were homeless.[4]


Physical/Mental Health

The rates of mental disorders and chronic and infectious diseases are much greater for prison inmates than for the general population.  The rate of AIDS among the nation’s prison population was about 3.5 times the rate among the general population in 2002.[5]  In 1997, 16.2% of state prison inmates and 7.4% of federal inmates were identified as mentally ill and 18.9% of state prisoners were taking medication for a mental or emotional problem.  About sixty percent of the state prisoners identified as mentally ill also reported receiving some type of treatment since their admission into the institution.[6]  But after a prisoner is released they need to pay for medications and other treatments themselves and they may not be able to afford them.  Most can apply for Medicaid or Medicare but there is a gap in time between when they are released and when these benefits are approved. 



In general, those who are incarcerated are less educated than the general population in the US.  In 1997, 26.5% of federal prison inmates and 39.7% of state inmates had received less than a high school degree or equivalent, as opposed to 18.4% of the general population.  Twelve percent of federal inmates and 14.2% of state inmates had only an 8th grade education or less, as opposed to 7.2% of the general population.  The state inmates who had less than a high school degree or equivalent were the least likely among inmates to have been employed before their arrest, the most likely to have been homeless before being arrested, and they had the smallest personal incomes before being incarcerated.[7]  Lower educational levels are often equated with weaker vocational skills--yet another reason why ex-offenders have a hard time finding work upon release.  Thankfully, educational improvement seems to be desirable among inmates as 51.9% of state prisoners and 56.4% of federal prisoners were participating in some sort of educational program in 1997, and about 70% of the inmates holding a GED said that they had obtained their high school equivalency while incarcerated.[8] 




For most ex-prisoners, the presence of a positive role model is completely absent.  It can be difficult for ex-prisoners reentering society to hold down a job, pay bills on time, or resolve family conflicts in a healthy way when these skills have never been modeled for them.  The support of a mentor can play a key role in a prisoner’s successful return to society by providing advice and accountability.  Below are some practical ways that mentors can aid ex-offenders before, during, and after reentry:


·        Meet ex-offenders at the gate or bus station to keep them company during the critical hours after release. 

·        Assist them in developing a “life plan.”

·        Identify their strengths and weaknesses, skills and abilities, so that they can find employment this is tailored to those qualities

·        Coach them in job interview skills.

·        Help them write their resume and fill out job applications.

·        Provide them with a ride or a bus pass to get to job interviews and job searches.

·        When they locate a job, introduce yourself to their supervisor and offer to help when issues arise.

·        Introduce them to your congregations and include them in your worship services, Bible Studies, and other activities and support services.

·        Help them develop independent living skills, such as budgeting or shopping.

·        Help them deal with difficulties with their family and loved ones.

·        Meet their parole or probation officer, and make sure they keep their appointments.  Let the supervising authorities know you are available to help as issues arise.

·        Drive them to parole or probation appointments, if necessary.

·        Accompany them to medical and social service appointments to help them tolerate delays in waiting rooms and other challenges.

·        Be available to help when temptation arises.[9]





For Further Reading


Adult Correctional Treatment

by Gerald G. Gaes Timothy J. Flanagan Lawrence Motiuk Lynn Stewart

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons 1998

The version posted here is a working paper; a later version was published in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, University of Chicago Press


Assessing Correctional Rehabilitation: Policy, Practice, and Prospects

by Francis T. Cullen and Paul Gendreau

National Institute of Justice, 2000


From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry

by Jeremy Travis, Amy L. Solomon, Michelle Waul

Urban Institute, 2001


From Prison to Work: The Employment Dimensions of Prisoner Reentry

by Amy L. Solomon, Kelly Dedel Johnson, Jeremy Travis, and Elizabeth C. McBride

Urban Institute, 2004


Outside the Walls: A National Snapshot of Community-based Prisoner Reentry Programs


Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry

by Christy Visher, Nancy La Vigne, and Jeremy Travis

Urban Institute, 2004


[1] U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002 by Doris J. James, July 2004.


[2] Harer, M. 1994. Recidivism of Federal Prisoners Released in 1987. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Prison, Office of Research and Evaluation.

Uggen, Christopher. 2000. “Work as a Turning Point in the Life Course of Criminals: A Duration Model of Age, Employment, and Recidivism.” American Sociological Review 65, 529-546.


[3] Holzer, Harry, Steven Raphael, and Michael Stoll. 2001. Will Employers Hire Ex-Offenders? Employer Checks, Background Checks, and Their Determinants. Berkeley Program on Housing and Urban Policy. Working Papers: Working Paper W01-005. Available at:


[4] California Department of Corrections. 1997. Preventing Parolee Failure Program: An Evaluation. Sacramento: California Department of Corrections.


[5] Laura M. Maruscha. 2004. HIV in Prisons and Jails, 2002. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.


[6] To be identified as mentally ill, the prisoner personally reported either having a mental or emotional condition or an overnight stay in a mental hospital or treatment program.

Paula M. Ditton. 1999. Mental Health and Treatment of Inmates and Probationers. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.


[7] Caroline Wolf Harlow. 2003. Education and Correctional Populations. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.


[8] Ibid.

[9] Pat Nolan. When Prisoners Return: Why We Should Care and How You and Your Church Can Help. Prison Fellowship, 2004.